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Roberts v. State

Court of Appeals of Mississippi

October 17, 2017


          DATE OF JUDGMENT: 04/06/2016






          GRIFFIS, P.J.

         ¶1. Mitchell James Roberts was convicted of aggravated driving under the influence (DUI) after a jury found that he operated a motor vehicle while under the influence of an intoxicating substance, specifically, Xanax, which impaired his ability to drive, and negligently caused the death of Arnold Altman Jr. Roberts was sentenced to twenty-five years, with seven years suspended, leaving eighteen years to serve in the custody of the Mississippi Department of Corrections, followed by five years of postrelease supervision. Additionally, Roberts was ordered to pay all court costs, a $2, 000 fine, and restitution in the amount of $7, 150. Following the denial of his posttrial motions, Roberts timely appealed. Upon review, we find no error and affirm.


         ¶2. On July 13, 2013, around 3:00 p.m., fourteen-year-old Altman Jr., who was a passenger in his father's automobile, died when his father's vehicle was struck head-on by a truck driven by Roberts. The accident occurred on a four-lane bridge on Highway 19 in Meridian.

         ¶3. At the time of the accident, Altman Jr. and his father were traveling to the store. As they were driving, a truck, driven by Roberts and traveling in the opposite direction, crossed the median-like lane, veered into the Altmans' lane of traffic, and struck the passenger side of the Altmans' vehicle head-on, killing Altman Jr. Many witnesses observed the accident and offered their assistance. Two of the witnesses, Margaret Davis and Stephanie Ruffin, were nurses and testified at trial.

         ¶4. Davis testified that she and her husband were traveling on Highway 19 when Roberts's truck veered toward their vehicle. Davis commented to her husband that the driver almost hit them. As her husband continued to drive, Davis turned around and saw the truck veer into oncoming traffic and "implode" into the Altmans' vehicle. Davis and her husband turned around in order to provide assistance. Davis initially went to Roberts's vehicle and attempted to give him aid. However, Roberts was incoherent. Davis stated that Roberts was awake, but out of it and could not form a sentence.

         ¶5. In an attempt to explain Roberts's behavior following the accident, defense counsel suggested that Roberts was suffering from retrograde amnesia. While Davis acknowledged that retrograde amnesia was common in people involved in automobile crashes, she did not think Roberts was suffering from amnesia, but instead thought he appeared to be under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Davis described Roberts's face as "diaphoretic, " or sweaty, and his pupils as "pinpoint."

         ¶6. Ruffin also saw Roberts veer out of his lane of traffic. Ruffin stated it was not an abrupt move, but instead described Roberts as "gradually drifting" out of his lane. Based on Roberts's driving, Ruffin assumed he was texting and driving. However, Ruffin stated her assumption changed when she saw the impact.

         ¶7. Ruffin initially went to the Altmans' vehicle and helped Altman out of the car. However, she noticed Altman Jr. was not responsive and did not have a pulse. She then went to Roberts's truck. Ruffin described Roberts as "in and out" and stated his speech was slurred. When Ruffin asked Roberts what had happened, Roberts responded that he had "blacked out" or "blanked out."

         ¶8. Detective Greg Crain of the Meridian Police Department testified that he was called to the scene of the accident at approximately 3:30 p.m. After Crain assessed the scene and took photographs, he went to the hospital, where he eventually spoke with Roberts. Roberts told Crain that the last thing he remembered was leaving his friend's house in Collinsville. Roberts asked Crain how the passenger of his truck was doing. However, Crain explained to Roberts that he was the only person in his vehicle. Although Roberts did not recall what he was doing at his friend's house, he admitted to Crain that he had consumed two beers prior to the accident.

         ¶9. Crain executed an affidavit and obtained a search warrant in order for a sample of Roberts's blood and urine to be seized and tested for the presence of drugs and alcohol. The samples were collected at 6:35 p.m., over three hours after the accident occurred.

         ¶10. Kara Jackson, a hospital nurse who treated Roberts in the emergency room, testified that Roberts arrived at 3:28 p.m. and was agitated and cursing, but alert, oriented, and able to follow commands. Jackson described Roberts's eyes as reactive, equal in size, and small, but not pinpoint. According to Jackson, Roberts's skin was not diaphoretic when he arrived at the hospital.

         ¶11. Jackson noted that Roberts was experiencing "amnesia event retrograde, " since he could not recall any details of the accident. However, Dr. Lindsey Prewitt, an internal-medicine doctor, testified that based on her consultation with Roberts, there was no indication of retrograde amnesia, and there was nothing in his medical history to support such a finding. Additionally, Dr. William Billups III, a surgeon who treated Roberts in the emergency room, testified that based on his consultation with other specialists, there was no indication of any underlying medical problems, including head injury or seizure, which might have caused or contributed to the accident.

         ¶12. When asked about his medical history, Roberts advised the hospital staff that he was not taking any medications and was not being treated for any medical issues. However, the blood test revealed Roberts had benzodiazepines in his system. Specifically, the compound identified in his system was alprazolam, otherwise known as Xanax.[1] Further testing revealed Roberts had fifty-one nanograms per milliliter of Xanax in his system. According to expert testimony, this amount of Xanax is within the therapeutic range. Roberts did not test positive for alcohol.

         ¶13. Maury Phillips, the State's toxicology expert, testified that Xanax is usually prescribed to manage anxiety or panic disorders. Phillips stated that the two most common side effects of Xanax are drowsiness and light-headedness, but also include confusion, sweating, slurred speech, pinpoint pupils, and "syncope, " which "means that you might faint or black out." Phillips explained that the effects of and tolerance to Xanax varied from person to person and were influenced by the duration of use and the amount taken.

         ¶14. Importantly, Phillips testified that impairment can still occur within the therapeutic range. He explained that there was not a direct correlation between driving impairment and drug concentration "like we have for alcohol to say that if you're a certain number, you're impaired."

         ¶15. Phillips admittedly did not review Roberts's medical records and was unable to render an opinion as to whether Roberts was driving impaired based on the concentration of Xanax alone, since the amount in his system was within the therapeutic range. According to Phillips, in order to make an assessment about drug-induced driving impairment, you must consider all of the evidence, including the particular events surrounding the accident, any eyewitness testimony, the results of the toxicology report, and the individual's information, such as his medical history, drug tolerance, and reason for the drug use.

         ¶16. Roberts's information and medical history regarding his use of Xanax, including the duration of use, the amount taken, and the reason for use, or whether the medication was even prescribed, was unknown.[2] However, Phillips stated that Davis's and Ruffin's observations at the accident scene, along with the testimony regarding Roberts's erratic driving, were indicators of impairment.

         ¶17. Dr. Richard Ogletree Jr., an expert in toxicology and pharmacology, testified on behalf of Roberts. When asked whether Roberts was impaired, Ogletree, like Phillips, stated that such a determination required specific clinical observations in addition to blood-concentration levels. However, unlike Phillips, Ogletree reviewed Roberts's medical records and stated there was no evidence of impairment in the records. Ogletree stated he could not consider Davis's and Ruffin's observations at the accident scene, since they were not made under clinical conditions, nor were they contemporaneously recorded.

         ¶18. Ogletree testified that while fifty-one nanograms of Xanax per milliliter of blood is in the middle of a therapeutic range, a person could still be impaired with such a blood-concentration level. Ogletree agreed that tolerance is important in determining impairment, but could not state whether Roberts had built up a tolerance, since he had not spoken with Roberts or reviewed any medical history or medical records, other than those related to the accident.

         ¶19. Prior to trial, Roberts moved to suppress the results of the blood sample seized pursuant to the search warrant obtained by Crain. Roberts claimed "there was no probable cause to believe that [he] was operating a motor vehicle under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol, " and, therefore, no "substantial credible evidence" existed to support the issuance of the search warrant. A motion hearing was held wherein Crain and the municipal court judge who issued the search warrant testified. The circuit court subsequently denied the motion to suppress.

         ¶20. Following his conviction, Roberts filed a motion for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict and a motion for a new trial, both of which were denied. Roberts now appeals and argues: (1) the evidence was insufficient to support the verdict, (2) the verdict was contrary to the overwhelming weight of the evidence, (3) his confrontation rights were compromised since the circuit court allowed the technical reviewer to testify in lieu of the actual crime-lab analyst, (4) the circuit court erroneously denied his motion to suppress since there was insufficient ...

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